As I read Helen Keller’s early autobiography The Story of My Life, I found much of what I had passively learned about her being reinforced. Her accomplishments are undeniably impressive. The victim of an illness which left her deaf and blind around the time she was two years old, Keller spent her life fighting against the extraordinarily debilitating handicaps she had been handed, becoming in the process a cultural symbol of perseverance.
Published in 1902 when Keller was only 22 years old, The Story of My Life is most riveting when it details Keller’s struggles to overcome her impediments. Describing the revelatory moment when, at seven years of age, she became language-conscious, aware of the relationship between words and forms, she ecstatically notes:
“Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living world awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”
Eventually, she learns how to read braille, and then, finally, through a great deal of practice and discipline, even learns how to speak: “Miss Fuller’s method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound.” When her family hears her speak for the first time, “little MIldred seized my free hand and kissed it and danced, and my father expressed his pride and affection in a big silence.” An outpouring of joy.
One of the most interesting sections of the book, however, is also one of the darkest. At the age of 12, Keller had a short-story she had written published by the Perkins Institution for the Blind – “the pinnacle of my happiness” – only to be accused shortly thereafter of plagiarism. Explaining the mistake, Keller interestingly notes how:
“At that time I eagerly absorbed everything I read without a thought of authorship, and even now I cannot quite be sure of the boundary line between my ideas and those I find in books. I suppose that is because so many of my impressions come to me through the medium of others’ eyes and ears.”
In the end, Keller was understandably absolved of any intentional misdoing, with even the author she had accidentally plagiarized lending support. More importantly, though, this incident brings into focus Keller’s complex, asymmetrical relationship to the outside world.
Just as her impressions came to her “through the medium of others’ eyes and ears,” so did her learning arrive through external sources. As Keller frequently notes, she could scarcely have achieved half of what she did without the tutelage and emotional support of Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan, whose “power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders.” And then later: “All the best of me belongs to her – there is not a talent, or an inspiration or a joy in me that has not awakened by her living touch.”
Except, I would argue, there was a powerful, mostly unrecognized force in Keller’s young life without which Sullivan would likely not have been able to have made such a sizable impact. Indeed, although Keller is wont to heap praise on Sullivan, a much more potent ally may have been her family’s relatively high socioeconomic status. While Keller never directly addresses her family’s financial situation in The Story of My Life, its force is felt on nearly every page, enabling her to travel to and afford the services of various medical specialists, to attend specialized schools like the Perkins Institute for the Blind and the Horace Mann School, to afford various tutors, and, of course, to afford the services of Miss Sullivan, Keller’s personal guide and companion for no less than 10 years.
In a telling passage near the autobiography’s end, Keller describes a trip to “the crowded city,” to “the narrow, dirty streets where the poor live.” After observing their squalor, she naively concludes that their poverty would cease if only they “would leave the city, its splendour and its tumult and its gold, and return to wood and field and simple honest living! Then would their children grow stately as noble trees, and their thoughts sweet and pure as wayside flowers.”
Keller’s optimism, charming though it may seem, is condescending in a way that speaks to her socialization, and the wide array of privileges she enjoyed. There is a perniciousness in her assumption that poor people could be wealthy if only they chose to that makes one question her story’s larger cultural significance. What can the disabled and handicapped poor really take away from her success? As I finished The Story of My Life, of course I came away with an appreciation for Keller’s learning and her awesome personal drive. It would be hard for anyone not to. But I also left with a greater appreciation for the power of money, and the awesome opportunities it can provide.